We’d like to see all love stories end happily ever after. The “ever after” part would presumably mean the two characters die happily in their sleep at the exact same time. However, much like love at first sight, this kind of ever after is somewhat rare. Instead, the end of a loving relationship is likely filled with grief and loneliness. Michael Haneke‘s Amour looks at the slow, painful decay of a marriage where we’re forced to question how love can endure when a loved one cannot. The experience of watching his movie is exceedingly agonizing, and is more horrific than any film featuring a lunatic with a chainsaw. And yet for all of its brutal honesty, Amour can’t help but feel obvious, which makes the emotional impact feel more exploitative than revelatory.
During breakfast one morning, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is shocked to discover that his wife Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) has lost consciousness for a brief period and she has no recollection of the event. So begins the elderly couple decent into tragedy as Anne becomes the victim of numerous strokes that begin to strike away at her body and mind. Georges becomes her caretaker, but the woman he once knew—the one who loved him and taught classical music—is becoming a shell. In addition to caring for Anne, Georges finds himself increasingly secluded and unable to make anyone, especially his daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) understand the burden he must carry. Everything has become steeped in death—Anne’s body, Georges’ soul, and their relationship.
Haneke could almost be spitting the title “Amour”. Sentiment gives ways to pragmatism, but the pragmatism begs the question of why Georges continues to act the way he does. The couple has long passed the point of deep affectation when we first meet them. Instead, they are steady and comfortable. The love is inherent to their long relationship, but that love changes once the relationship changes. Georges and Anne find that they’ve moved from man and wife to caretaker and patient. This is the “sickness” in “sickness and in health”, and there’s a reason that phrase ends with “health”—the sickness can be too horrible to comprehend as Amour makes us feel every excruciating detail. From the little details like installing a mechanical bed to Anne’s moans of “hurts…hurts…”, we are as helpless as Georges watching his wife slowly slip away.
One could argue that there is still “love” in Amour, but Haneke is no romantic. It may be a bit of a stretch to call him a cynic, but every moment of love in Amour painted with sadness. We see it from the start as a crippled Anne is carried by Georges. The way he carries her, it almost looks like dancing, which might seem romantic, except its not. Neither party is getting pleasure from this movement. It’s almost a cruel mockery of what Georges and Anne once had and what they’ll never have again.
The lack of love doesn’t make Amour a bad film. On the contrary, it makes the movie a bitingly honest one. We’re looking in on a world that Georges would desperately like to keep private. Eva thinks that her mother is still there, but Georges knows the truth, and at one point locks the door so Eva won’t go in. Georges is desperate to preserve the memory of what his wife was because every moment he is reminded that the woman he loved is fading and only a cruel ghost remains.
Haneke’s thoughtful direction slowly drains the movie of its color, its momentum, and every ounce of vitality. Equal credit goes to his terrific lead actors. The temptation to give a showy performance must have been tempting when offered such dramatically challenging and emotionally devastating characters. Thankfully, Trintignant and Riva play the roles with remarkable subtlety. Even Riva, who must portray the stages of a dying woman, plays to the total reality of Anne’s situation. Riva’s performance is gut-wrenching, especially to anyone who has been in Georges’ position.
But this familiarity can’t help but make Amour feel far too obvious, and despite Haneke keeping his movie quiet and sinister, we can’t help but wonder what the movie has to offer other than a painful look at a likely future for any couple. We’re intruding on Georges and Anne’s life; we’re being forced to watch a personal display, and there’s no point in forcing us to see it. We know it looks terrible and shoving our faces in it doesn’t add more emotional weight to the scenes. We know drowning is horrible, but Haneke wants to keep pushing us further underwater as if we didn’t get the point. Even for a quiet movie, Haneke can’t seem to resist that unsubtle symbolism of a bird flying into Georges and Anne’s home as Anne comes closer to death.
Amour should be tough to watch considering its subject matter, but we never truly feel the characters’ pain. How could we unless we’ve experienced it ourselves, and at that point, Amour offers nothing but a sadistic reminder. Instead, Haneke gives us questions with no answers, but the mere consideration of these questions is unnerving in their own right. What is love when the relationship is unrecognizable? Who is love for? Can any emotion be worth the horror it can later inflict? Amour shatters any hope love can bring, and only leaves helplessness behind.